Tom Clonan: Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy
I deployed to south Lebanon as a young army officer in the Autumn of 1995. Since the mid 1970s, Irish men and women have served over 69,000 individual tours of duty in Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Despite this, most Irish people know little or nothing of our unique experience of peacekeeping in the Middle East.
Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy opens with an account of a personal epiphany in Lebanon. By April 1996, I had spent four months caught in the crossfire between Hizbullah and the Israeli military. During that time, I had been shot at, shelled, mortared and subjected to countless air strikes and artillery bombardments. Day and night saw my unit collect the bodies of the dead and injured – mostly innocent women and children from the scorched and flattened remains of family homes. We called it ‘collecting the bodies from the wadis’.
I cradled and carried the body of a lifeless girl to my armoured command vehicle. My sergeant carried her younger brother.
My mother called from Ireland on the satellite phone. She asked me if I was ‘wearing a jumper’. ‘You’d catch your death in this weather’.
On my last day in Lebanon, I soaked my filthy combats in diesel and burned them in a barrel outside the reinforced bunker in Al Yatun. I burned the St. Christopher medal that my mother had sewn into my combat jacket also. I added all of the letters she had sent me for good measure. A letter for each day of my deployment.
And how appropriate for a boy educated by the Christian Brothers to discover the sacred mysteries – of life and death – among the olive groves and scorched earth of the Holy Land. To caress the hands of a little girl, already stiff and cold with rigor mortis. To pat the dust off her lilac t- shirt bearing the words, ‘I love my baby brother’.
In mid April 1996, my unit attended one of the worst massacres in Lebanese history at the village of Qana. Seventy two hours later, I was walking up Grafton Street with my girlfriend. I spoke to my Dad – a Dublin based Garda – about the experience. He told me to ‘keep it under my hat’. ‘If you make too much of it, it will affect your promotion prospects’. And so, I buried the experience.
In March 2003, my beloved mother passed away prematurely after a lengthy battle with cancer. I watched her die in slow motion. A week later, I buried my little daughter Liadain. As I placed her tiny coffin into the cold grey soil of Glasnevin Cemetery, I had another epiphany. In that moment, I was re-connected with the dead and dying children that I and my fellow soldiers had held in Lebanon. United with my brothers and sisters in Lebanon through loss and grieving.
That was the first step toward writing this book. My Dad passed away not long after my Mum. In going through my parents personal effects, I found the letters that I had written from Lebanon. Carefully bound by an elastic band in my Mum’s drawer.
My deployment to Lebanon coincided with that period just before mobile phones and email. I had written home most days. In my letters I described the patrols and small details of my life in Al Yatun. I avoided all mention of the violence. I never told them about the daily shell warnings on the Motorola, ‘Gate One Four Alpha has commenced firing into your grid location’.
I was issued with a copy of the Unit History from my deployment from Lebanon. Each shooting incident – thousands of them – carefully logged by date and time. Between the letters, the unit history and my own diaries, I was able to write a memoir of my time in Lebanon in the first person. In the present tense. In the vernacular of a young man on a journey of discovery. A young man on a journey of heartbreak, loss and grief.
In a similar manner, Whistleblower also recounts my experiences in Bosnia in the Autumn of 1996. I also reconstruct my experiences as a Whistleblower within the Irish Army – revealing unacceptable levels of bullying and sexual violence towards female soldiers in all branches of the Irish armed forces.
The book also recounts my experiences as a journalist – Irish Times Security Analyst – travelling through the Global War on Terror. From Shannon Airport to Syria, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and all the way back to the school run on the Rock Road in Dublin with my four small children.
The book is a roller coaster of a read. It is – I hope – a psychologically literate and emotionally intelligent account of a time of war, loss and love. Whilst much of the material is very dark, I found it therapeutic to write. In many respects, Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy is an exorcism. Through its black humour and account of survival against the odds – I realised through the writing process the power of love to replace fear with hope.
I found the writing a totally immersive process. At the end of each day of writing, as the children came in from school and dinners had to be made, I found I had to run on the beach in Sandymount for at least an hour each day – to ‘re-enter’ the present. The writing process was intense. I cried for my parents. My daughter. My sister – who also died of cancer, in the period of reflection and re-awakening.
The result is a book that will make the leader laugh and cry in equal measure. I believe it is the only book in print that tells the story of war, loss of innocence, loss of life, loss of a child, loss of parents and loss of belief in certainty – from the Irish male perspective. In that respect – I hope that it is compulsory reading for both men and women alike.
(c) Tom Conlan
Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy charts Clonan’s progression from soldier to academic and journalist as Irish Times security analyst and offers an honest and vivid account of life on and off duty.
Clonan writes of his own personal hardships, coming to terms with the loss of a precious daughter and the struggle to protect a son in ill health. It is a testimony to conflict, global and personal, and of the importance of moral courage. It is a book which ultimately affirms the power of love in the fight against the forces of destruction.
Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy is available in all good bookshops and online from Liberties Press here.